My name is Sharon, and I have bipolar disorder. There. I said it.
I am no longer anonymous. I no longer live in a world where old friends, former students and potential lovers can’t find out about my mental health diagnosis. Now you all know my truth.
I am a happy and successful woman living in recovery and I would be lying if I said that writing this, putting this out there, did not scare me a little.
But here it is, here is my story.
I never imagined that I would become “mentally ill’. When I became depressed in my junior year of high school, I believed that it was my fault. People talked about brain chemistry, but that didn’t matter to me. I knew that I should be stronger than this. I would rather have died then tell anyone I had a mental illness. Honestly, I almost did. I suffered in silence for almost a year before the truth came out. The stigma of mental illness, the shame… I thought it would destroy me.
I left for college and I thought I would leave my past behind. However, I kicked off my second semester by not sleeping for six weeks and it was clear I was unraveling. When I left for spring break, I never came back. Six months later, I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
During the years that followed, not many people knew the truth about my illness and why I had left school. Only my immediate family and closest friends knew the whole story. With everyone else, I evaded awkward questions and withdrew farther and farther away.
Things began to change for me when I started to become healthy again. My treatment was working, and I was learning the skills to keep myself well. It is the hardest thing I have ever done.
I began to speak in the mental health community through my local National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) affiliate in DuPage County, Illinois. I felt like I was making a difference by sharing my story in schools and hospitals. In these situations, it felt safe to share. I could bare my soul, expose all the darkest parts of my self and then leave the inpatient psychiatric unit behind locked doors and go back to my life. I was still anonymous.
This all changed with one question.
In the scheme of things, the guy who asked the question doesn’t matter. We had been on one date over a year ago and he just started texting me again. We were texting back and forth and then he asked me the question, “Why did you want to work for NAMI?”
I froze, but only for a moment. I instantly knew that the time for lies and anonymity was over.
Disclosing the details of your mental health history can have complicated consequences in both your personal and public life. Most people err on the side of discretion. I certainly always had. But that question made me realize that I could no longer publicly tell people how important it is to be open and talk about mental illness while hiding my true self away. I had to practice what I preached.
So, I began to open up and tell more people my truth. Now, I live my life as an open book. This does not mean I shout about my mental health diagnosis from the rooftops, but I do not seek to hide it either.
Since coming out about my mental illness, the world has been kind to me. I have not felt stigma harsher than the stigmas I faced in my own mind. The most damning voice was my own.
There is no perfect formula for coming out about mental illness. For most off us, it is a process, not an event. For me, it has been an incredibly empowering and humbling journey. Even now, I am a tiny bit afraid. But I know this is bigger than me.
My name is Sharon. I have bipolar disorder, and this is my story.